Widespread Panic, Beacon Theater, NYC- 4/22 & 23
Before April 22, 2003 I had not seen Widespread Panic since the fall of 2001. In most cases, that is not such a big deal. One can keep up with the band through trading live shows or picking up a latest official release whether studio or live. I have been doing both of those things for Panic, but this show would be far different from the last one I saw only a year and a half a go. The late Mikey Houser was playing guitar for the group when I last saw them, and despite having heard shows with new guitarist George McConnell, there was no way I could truly prepare for the difference. It turned out to be ok, but adjusting to the look of the stage without Mikey on the left was certainly odd at first, not to mention the sound of the more hard driving distortion driven guitar playing of McConnell.
The Beacon adds excitement to any show. The last time the band had played in the intimate location was the summer of 2001 for a three-night run. The northeast is often deprived of the band since visits to the area are not nearly as common as to other regions of the country. The band was in New York, which with almost anyone would create substantial buzz surrounding the show as the two nights approached. Both nights of the two-night stand were sold out.
The show started with all members on the stage and a relatively short "Drums" kicked off the night. After the familiar had ended, however, the sound that was relatively stranger to me introduced itself immediately and in bold fashion in the form of "Papa Legba," the Talking Heads original, and "Old Neighborhood." Plenty of rumblings and complaints concerning McConnell and the sound change of Panic because of his role in the band have come from Panic fans. And, in fact the fans' problems with the altered sound are mildly justified. The often heavily distorted guitar sound coming from McConnell can at times be too much, but the reason that I believe most have a problem with the newer sound is, simply, because it is new. My first impression was indeed that the sound coming from McConnell was overbearing, but by the third song, "One Arm Steve," JoJo Herman's keyboards and vocals took over and McConnell settled into the mix.
The next two songs, "Tortured Artist" from the new album, Ball, and "Nobody's Fault But Mine," were both played well, but were curiously placed in the setlist: it seemed that before the "...Artist" began the energy was moving upward at an exponential pace and these two songs, although both good ones, took much of the energy out of the room. This is not saying anything about the quality of the songs played, as they are both excellent vehicles to display John Bell's vocals, but that it was too early in the evening to play songs that were essentially breathers. As bassist Dave Schools lay down the foundation for "Henry Parson's Died," it was clear that the band was ready to continue with the same force as the beginning of the show had. John Bell showed off his passionate vocals as he roared, "Find out how tall I am…" as "Proving Ground" moved in many different directions.
And the band ended the first set on a definite high note with the crowd favorite filled with plenty of energy, "Space Wrangler." Ending the set on this note left the audience wanting more, as it seemed the six members never reached their full potential, but that would come soon enough.
The second set started to build quickly as Sonny Ortiz began the Latin flavored percussion of "Thin Air." With the audience following the band wherever they chose to go, the energy that the first set ended with was recaptured as drummer, Todd Nance, pounded out the introduction to "Love Tractor" as the crowd pounded their fists with him and throughout the song. George McConnell came powerfully back into the forefront as he had for a majority of the first set, but at this point he seemed more restrained, which suited the rest of the band much better.
The band seemed to mirror the energy flow of the first set, as they moved into the slow paced, "Don't Wanna Lose You." At this point I was worried that the band would sink into the slower paced groove that kept them from reaching the frenzy that Panic is so capable of, but Dave Schools lay down a funk inspired bass line which became "Rebirtha" which started the best playing of the night, matched only by the final moments of the evening. By the time the band segued from "Pilgrims," which was preceded by a deep rooted funk bass jam, into "Surprise Valley" the band was a six-part machine, tightly oiled and moving at a fast pace. I always have mixed reactions when the four members not making up the percussion section of the band leave the stage for "Drums." I find it to be entertaining and there are some things that Sonny can do that are jaw dropping, but I prefer both Todd and Sonny at the same time, because I think Todd adds a great amount of power to the sound, which rescues "Drums" from becoming monotonous. As the rest of the band reemerged, the machine became a six-headed monster spurning out a gigantic jam as Bell belted out "Surprise Valley" with the crowds enthusiasm mirroring his own.
At the second half of "...Valley" the band lingered around the song, and began an extended introduction to the Panic staple, "C. Brown." After the furious nature of what came before, "C. Brown" was, unlike some other slower paced songs of the night, placed well as the band settled back down. "All Time Low" closed the second set, with the entire band playing with as much energy as they had the entire night. The encore, however, would surpass what came before.
When the stage lights came back on to welcome the band back for the encore, the audience welcomed, along with the six members of the band, Warren Haynes, guitarist of the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule. The band found a deep groove led by Dave Schools in the Stevie Wonder original, "Superstition." Haynes and McConnell dueled back and forth, and as Bell sang the classic lyrics, it seemed that Haynes's guitar playing was the physical manifestation of Bell's rough voice, especially when the band moved into the more gritty Tom Waits original, "Goin' Out West."
McConnell had plenty of practice with the band before my first viewing of him with the band, and I am glad about that. I think that he has definitely found a niche with the band, and his technical skill certainly advances the sound. This has both its ups and downs, since change is not often good when a band has reached such a comfortable pinnacle, but to watch a band be challenged and succeed is a positive.
After the first night of Panic at the Beacon the big story was the encore, not necessarily the songs played, but rather that Warren Haynes joined in for the "Superstition" > "Goin' Out West" performance. As people mingled throughout the theater, there was little talk of the rest of the show, which made sense. It was the most exciting moment of the show, but it meant that Widespread Panic needed to pull out something equally or more captivating on April 23rd as they had the night before.
I was quick to notice, as I assume the entire population of the theater did, that there were two chairs set up: one in guitarist's George McConnell's location and the other for John Bell. This could only mean one thing: acoustic first set. All right, the band had themselves another gimmick in order to make this show stand out from the rest. Although the band had broken out an acoustic set just this tour, it is still something to talk about, regardless of the performance. The acoustic set meant two additional things: a more relaxed George McConnell who can show off his true guitar skill without being overshadowed by his at times overbearing style, and a more subdued instrumental accompaniment.
The band started in an upbeat fashion, as Sonny and George played the introduction as John Bell sang the introduction of "Who Do You Belong To?" This was, as was the rest of the set as well, relatively the bare bones song. That element of the acoustic set has several positives, but with those positives come negatives as well. Often bands in the genre lose sight of where the "jam" came from in the first place, and perhaps it is a challenge as well to stay true to the original, without becoming stale. Of course, there is a downside to that, as highlights of the set are not really the stellar playing or improvisation as normally seen, but rather a song was played. That being said, "Porch Song," the Talking Heads original "Heaven," and "Chunk of Coal" were the standouts. And although the voice of John Bell is a driving force in making the band's sound distinct, it is the more powerful electric sound that defines the band. From the little exposure I have had to songs from the newly released Widespread Panic album, Ball, I feel that they naturally lend themselves to an acoustic, more intimate setting, but I may warm up to them as we become more acquainted.
There were one major problem with the acoustic set, however- the disrespectful crowd. I am not saying that all members of the audience found it appropriate to carry on loud conversations during the supposed-to-be-intimate first set, but it baffled me to see this going on all around me. I always fail to understand how people think that because the band is playing softer the audience members should become louder to equal the normal level of sound in the room.
When the band reemerged from a setbreak that seemed to last an eternity, JoJo Hermann played the introduction of "Bayou Lena" while drummer Todd Nance took over on vocals. It was a good way to start off the second set, as it was fun enough for both the crowd and band to prepare for a more standard electric Panic set. Two songs from the new album followed, "Papa Johnny Road," my personal favorite track off the new record, and "Nebulous."
But it was when "Driving Song" followed that the madness began to manifest itself. The band moved from "Driving Song" to "Meeting of the Waters," which maintained the steadily ascending pace. From there it was on to "Drums," which I could have done without, since it seemed that the band was really working on something, but they managed not to lose it completely and create some anticipation within the crowd as well. The jam that followed "Drums" was well worth the wait as George McConnell played his best of the two nights, which became a fifteen-minute "Diner" featuring the same type of playing from McConnell as the night before. The band then came full circle as they returned to "Driving Song." It seemed that after the display of music the band would be remiss to attempt to create such a frenzy again. Nice versions of "Little Lilly" and "Give" followed to close out the second set, both well placed in the setlist as the audience grooved along with the band as both are very recognizable songs in the Panic live rotation.
Another guest, Jay Rodriguez who plays saxophone in Groove Collective, joined the band for the encore. Jay is not a stranger to performing with the band and added a smooth sound to go along with the hymn-like "Slippin' Into Darkness," originally recorded by War. The juxtaposition between the fluid saxophone and the rough sound of Bell's vocals was perfect. Bell sang with more emotion than he had the entire night, performing the song with the band in concert only for the fifth time, clearly about his lost band mate. "Sometimes" closed the set, which is a perfectly nice song, and everyone knew it, but it left something to be desired, compared to the second set. Overall the show was a good one. I think the band did a pretty solid job on their end; the audience just came up short.